msnbc.com staff and news service reports
COLORADO SPRINGS — A wildfire raging near some of Colorado’s most popular tourist sites grew suddenly more ferocious on Tuesday, forcing 32,000 people from their homes, prompting evacuations from the U.S. Air Force Academy and swallowing numerous houses at the edge of Colorado Springs.
The fire was “shaping up as one of the biggest disasters in Colorado history,” the Denver Post reported.
From the vantage point of a command post about 10 miles from the path of advancing flames, the entire community of Mountain Shadows, a northwest subdivision of Colorado Springs, appeared to be enveloped in an orange glow after dark.
“This is a fire of epic proportions,” Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown told Reuters as ash drifted down on the city, sirens wailed and the thick smell of smoke permeated the air.
The stubborn and towering wildfire had jumped firefighters’ perimeter lines in the hills overlooking Colorado Springs.
“We have homes burning right now,” El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said Tuesday night, according to the Denver Post.
The sheriff was among those forced from home by the fire, the newspaper added.
“It was like looking at the worst movie set you could imagine,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said after flying over the 9-square-mile fire late Tuesday. “It’s almost surreal. You look at that, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen before.”
With flames cresting a ridge high above its breathtaking, 28-square-mile campus, the Air Force Academy told more than 2,100 residents to evacuate 600 households. There was no immediate word on whether a new class of 1,045 cadets would report as scheduled on Thursday.
A curtain of flame and smoke teetered above the academy’s Falcon Stadium; billowing gray clouds formed a backdrop to its aluminum, glass and steel Cadet Chapel, an icon of the academy. Elsewhere, police officers directing traffic and fleeing residents covered their faces with T-shirts and bandanas to breathe through the smoke.
Colorado Springs Fire Chief Brown insisted that “many, many homes” were saved by firefighters. And Hickenlooper, who spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano Tuesday, told anxious residents that “We have all the support of the U.S. government. We have all the support of the state of Colorado. And we want everybody here to know that.”
Bryan Oller / AP
Throughout the interior West, firefighters have toiled for days in searing, record-setting heat against fires fueled by prolonged drought. Most, if not all, of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana were under red flag warnings, meaning extreme fire danger.
In central Utah, authorities found one woman dead Tuesday when they returned to an evacuated area, marking the first casualty in a blaze that consumed at least two dozen homes. Sanpete County sheriff’s officials said they hadn’t identified the victim, whose remains were found during a damage assessment of the 60-square-mile Wood Hollow Fire near Indianola.
The nation is experiencing “a super-heated spike on top of a decades-long warming trend,” said Derek Arndt, head of climate monitoring at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.
The Waldo Canyon fire, which started Saturday, was 5 percent contained before 65-mph wind gusts sent it surging toward Colorado Springs. The cause was under investigation.
To the north in Boulder County, officials evacuated 26 households when a wildfire erupted Tuesday afternoon following a lightning storm. No structures were immediately threatened, but the National Center for Atmospheric Research, perched on a hilltop in front of Boulder’s famous Flatirons foothills, closed as a precaution.
And in northern Colorado, the 136-square-mile High Park Fire has destroyed 257 homes and killed one woman, authorities said. That fire was triggered by lightning June 9.
Hickenlooper insisted Colorado was open to tourism, saying Colorado’s fires had affected just about a half-percent of all of the state’s public lands and perhaps 400 of its 10,000 campground sites.
In Utah, officials said the Wood Hollow Fire was 15 percent contained. High winds forced authorities to shut down part of U.S. 89 near Indianola, and evacuations were called for Fairview, a town of about 1,100 residents.
Elsewhere in the West:
- A fire that charred nearly 70 square miles west of Ruidoso, N.M., was 90 percent contained, with many residents allowed to return home.
- A wildfire north of Helena, Mont., destroyed four homes and forced additional evacuations. Gov. Brian Schweitzer issued a state of emergency for four counties.
- A wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest grew from about 300 acres to 2,000 acres Tuesday, marking the first major wildfire of the season in western Wyoming.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.